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Archives for : February2014

Nara – first capital of Japan

Before going to Nara, we had another day in Kyoto which we used for shopping. So now we have less money left but more omiyage (souvenirs) to take back home ;). Big shopping centres in Japan are similar to ours, thats why we don’t have many photos, but there are also some very nice little shopping streets like Nishiki Market (mostly for food and kitchen equipment). There we also found handmade Noren and fans.

nishiki_market

Nishiki Market

On the 19th we had to leave early because we had only one day for visiting Nara, which is not much time for Japans first capital. The city is beautiful with many traditional houses and shops. It seems to have not changed much for a long time. “Wild” Sika Deer live in the huge park nearby, nuzzling at passengers in expectance of some food. There even are some stands where you can buy Shika-senbei (deer-crackers) to feed them.
The most important things to see for us were the two temples Kofuku-Ji and Todai-Ji and the Kasuga Shrine. At the first one we saw only some of the buildings because the main building was hidden under a huge tent. Why? For restauration of course. But there was at least a nice pagoda and a very beautifully decorated side building.

kofukuji_pagoda

Kofuku-Ji Pagoda

kofukuji

Kofuku-Ji decoration

Same with Kasuga Shrine. Although the uncountable lanterns were quite impressive, we only saw part of the shrine which is getting a bit annoying by now.

kasuga

Kasuga Shrine

The best part of the day was Todai-Ji. The great Buddha Hall, called Daibutsuden, was worlds biggest wooden building until 1998 and it houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha (Daibutsu). It is a very old building and it really is amazing how small you feel when standing in front of it. Daibutsuden has been rebuilt twice (last time in 1709) and it’s 57m long, 50m wide and 46.8m high, even it is 30% smaller than the last one. The original complex also contained one pagoda with about 100m height on each side of the hall. These were unfortunately destroyed by an earthquake.

todai_ji

Daibutsuden

todai_ji_buddha

Daibutsu

In the Hall there was another attraction. A hole in one of the wooden pillars, which is just big enought for a person to edge through. Of course we tried it because it is said to bring good luck and we all managed to get through.

todai_ji_pillar

Todai-Ji pillar

 

Himeji, Kyoto and the curse of restoration

On February the 15th, we went to Kyoto via Himeji with the Shinkansen. Our goal was the Himeji-Jo, one of the most famous (maybe the most famous) castles of Japan. Whatever, as we left the Himeji Main Station we glimpsed something very disappointing: Himeji-Jo is being restored until spring 2015 and the whole Main Tower is covered by a big tent:

himeji1

Himeji-Jo

Himeji_Castle_The_Keep_Towers

Himeji-Jo (what we could have seen -.- )

Nevertheless, we went there. We got a guided tour in English, which was very interesting. Although the Main Tower is an impressive sight (as we saw on postcards and photos), the rest of the castle is nice to look on too.

himeji2

Himeji-Jo side buildings

We even got to see a “The Ring” like well. According to the legend, a kitchen handmaid dropped one of the precious plates of the masters porcelain. As punishment she was thrown into the well and died. At night, if you listen carefully, it is said that you can hear her counting the plates “Ichi-mai, Ni-mai, …”.

"Ichi-mai, Ni-mai, San-mai,..."

haunted well at Himeji-Jo

The following day, February the 16th, we went sightseeing in Marayuma district in Kyoto. The first object was the Kyomizudera, a temple that was built on a hill (in 1633) and for this reason is standing on up to 13m high pillars.

kiyomizudera

Kiyomizudera Temple

Somehow people believed, that jumping from that 13m high terasse makes your wishes come true. In Edo period, 234 jumps were documented, with amazing 85% surviving (there was more vegetation beneath back then).

Let´s talk about the next object of interest, the Kodai-Ji Temple. Each building for itself was not that amazing, but the overall picture including the gardens was quite beautiful and we could see some very old buildings in original condition.

kodaiji

Kodai-Ji courtyard

Maybe we sacrificed too little money the last time praying at the shrines/temples, because the last one we visited, is also being restored right now: the Chion-In Temple. This wasn´t that bad, because the main gate of Chion-In, the biggest temple gate in Japan, was not covered:

chion-in_gate

Chion-In Main Gate

Whatever, have a picture of the tent that covered the Main Hall, to get an impression of its size:

chion-in_mainhall

Chion-In Main Hall covered with a tent

During our tour, on our way from one temple to another, we didn´t get bored for sure, as those streets are famous shopping malls. You can see many historical buildings there and buy all kinds of souvenirs (“omiyage”). Here is how the streets look like:

kyoto_streets

streets of Marayuma

For today, February the 17th, we had a reservation for the Kyoto Imperial Palace and the Katsura Imperial Villa. The first was the residence of the Emperor until the Meji – Restoration, the second a country residence of the royal family. The buildings and the gardens of those two were very impressive, according to the tour guide they are among the most impressive architectural achievements of Japan and masterpieces of Japanese gardening. After entering (we had to show our passports more often than on an airport – the Japanese are very strict concerning their cultural monuments) we were overwhelmed by the amazingly beautiful insights.

emperors_throne

glimpse at a part of the Emperor´s throne at Kyoto Imperial Palace

katsura_villa_garden

a view of the garden at Katsura Imperial Villa

Hiroshima

On the 12th we arrived in Hiroshima. Traveling by Shinkansen for the first time was quite an attraction of itself. The wagons were very comfortable and the personnel as friendly as in every other japanese trains (bowing before entering and leaving the car for example). Railway companies of some other countries could really learn a thing or two from them ;)

As we were riding the tram to our hostel we caught a short glimpse of the Atomic Bomb Dome, the preserved ruin of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, which was destroyed by the atomic bomb dropped on the city. I think up to that point we somehow didn’t fully realise, how devasting that bombing was. It’s really hard to describe the feeling, that seeing this ruin triggered in us.

atomic_dome

the Atomic Dome

After arriving at our Hostel we headed out to explore our surroundings and on first impression the town seemed kind of lifeless compared to the cities we visited before. We decided to try something new for dinner so we headed for a Yakitori-restaurant (skewered meat and vegetables). The atmosphere was really convivial and our food tasted great, but the prices there were incredibly high compared to the amount of food we got.

The next day we went to Miyajima, the Island with the famous Itsukushima Shrine. This shrine was built over the bay so it seems to be floating if the tide is high. The torii of the shrine, also located in the bay, is about 16 metres high and  is one of the most photographed motifs of Japan. It was first built in 1168 but it was rebuilt a couple of times, so the current one dates back to 1875.

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Miyajima Torii

itsukujima_shrine

Itsukujima Shrine during low tide

The Itsukushima Shrine was not the only treasure we found on that Island, so we ended up visiting 4 shrines/temples in total, every single one with another entry for our Shuinchou.

daishoin_gate

Daishoin Temple gate

Daishoin_Temple_Hall

underground hall at Daishoin Temple

There also was a lot of “wild” deer in the village and it was quite fun to watch some unobservant passengers struggling to get their half eaten paperbags back from an indifferently paper-chewing deer.

deer

“wild” deer

We arrived back at Hiroshima and this time we went for Udon noodles at Musashi, which was a brilliant choice.

 

Today it was time to visit the Peace Memorial Museum and the Park surrounding it. The museum really manages to show the insanity of war and especially atomic warfare. As we reached the part of the exhibition where clothing and personal belongings worn or carried by people who died at the day or the days after the bombing were shown, I was really grateful, that we hadn’t managed to find a place to get breakfast.

stopped_watch

this watch stopped at the time of detonation

hiroshima_destruction

photo of the destruction, atomic dome on the left

hiroshima_model

before impact…

hiroshima_destroyed

…and after

Somewhat shaken we left the museum and headed for the Atomic Bomb Dome, to see it close up this time. After taking some pictures and walking around the Memorial Park, visiting the monuments there we calmed down a bit.

peace_memorial

The Memorial Cenotaph

Now we were ready again for some food. We found a place serving Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki (Soba or Udon noodle “pan cakes”) so we gave it a try. They served them at our own heated metal plate in the middle of our table and they were delicious.

okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki

After our meal we went to see Hiroshima Castle. The original castle was destroyed by the bomb, but they rebuilt parts of it. There is a exhibition in the rebuilt main tower showing the history of the castle, some old household goods, swords and armour. We were pretty surprised by the amount of the armament shown, which was just about the same as at the sword museum we visited at Tokyo. Sadly photographs were once more prohibited, so we can only show you the building itself.

hiroshima_castle_gate

Hiroshima Castle gate

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Hiroshima Castle tower

Tomorrow we will be heading to Kyoto with a short stopover at Himeji.

Visiting 8 Hells in Beppu

On 10. 2. we went on to Beppu, another town on Kyushu known for its hot springs, by train. This time our hotel was not so ordinary. We stayed in a Ryokan (a traditional Japanese hotel) for two nights. After check in, green tea awaited us in our room. There were no beds prepared, only a low table and cushions to sit on. The bathroom was also a bit unusual: For the guests they had three Rotenburo, about whirlpool sized hot spring baths (sometimes they were even a bit too hot so we had to pour in cold water) for private use.

Rotenburo

Rotenburo

That evening we went to a Tempura Restaurant not far away and got back to the Ryokan early to take a bath whilst our Futon was beeing prepared in our room. So when we came back, we had something to sleep on. Furthermore there were Yukata (a light Kimono) to wear after bathing and for sleeping.

room at night

room at night

For the days in the Ryokan a very good traditional breakfast was included, so we didn’t have to worry about that.
Next thing to do was visiting the hot spring Hells, also called Jigoku, small ponds formed by steam and hot water coming to the surface, nearly boiling, some poisonous and really bad smelling, everyone with its own colour due to dissolved minerals. As some of you may have guessed it’s not a good idea to take a bath there. ;) However, they look great, so it’s really worth the trip. They even cook food there using the hot water and steam. We had a combined ticket for eight of them. If you ever plan to visit the Hells we recommend all of them but two (Yama-Jigoku and Oniyama-Jigoku), because at those there are some animals kept under bad conditions.

Umi-Jigoku

Umi-Jigoku

Kamado-Jigoku

Kamado-Jigoku

On the evening we got dinner at the ryokan (not included). We didn’t know what it would be but it first looked like some salad spread over several little bowls. When we had already tried some and asked about it, we were told that in one of the bowls was Yubiki – salad with some stripes of fugu skin. That was kind of a surprise. After the first course there was some Sashimi, soup, beef, Tempura, something looking like lasagne with mushrooms, shrimps and squids, then some Soba, Miso Soup with rice and a desert. All in all it was way more than we expected after our first look at the table and every course was delicious.

in the middle: Yubiki

first course + Sashimi

beef with grill

beef with grill

Today we left the Ryokan for Hiroshima, hoping we did not make too many mistakes or even insult our hosts, who were very kind and patient with our questions.

Fukuoka

Yesterday we visited several shrines/temples, which fortunately were all located near the Hana Hostel. We started with the Kushida Shrine. Before its maingate is the biggest Otafuku Mask in Japan. Otafuku literally means “much good fortune” and the mask is a luck symbol for a long life.

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Otafuku mask

Next was the  Tocho-Ji temple, where we lit candles and incense sticks in front of the biggest wooden buddha statue in Japan. The statue was very impressive and beautiful, sadly it was forbidden to take any photos.
Another temple we visited was the Shofuku-Ji Zen Temple, which is the oldest zen temple in original condition (many burnt down during the centuries and were rebuilt later). It was built 1195 by Zen Master Yosai who, according to the information on the temple site, brought tea to Japan.

shofukuji_zen_temple

Shofukuji Zen Temple

Afterwards we went to the Fukuoka Castle ruins. Well, there wasn´t  that much to see, as only the parts made of stone remained until nowadays. However the effort was worth it, because in the park of the castle there were lots of trees already blooming slightly.

blossoms

blooming trees

The highlight of the day was still to come. At the evening we went to Nishimura Sushi, a small local restaurant specialized in preparing sushi. The employees were extremely friendly, spoke even a little bit english and the atmosphere was just great. We were asked how much we would like to spend and then the sushi master prepared our meal accordingly. Although it was the most expensive thing we ordered yet in Japan, it was absolutely worth it. To put it simply: it was by far the best sushi we ever ate.

sushi_fuk

sushi plate for three persons

As if that weren´t enough, we got an extra plate with fried fish and desert as special service. We had a little chat with the master afterwards, although we needed some help with the translation. All in all it was a great day!

And suddenly… Pandas!

Today we arrived in Fukuoka, despite all the chaos we encountered today. First of all we had to wait about 1 hour to get seats for the three of us on a train to Chitose Airport in Sapporo (the 4 trains that were sceduled before were all fully booked). When we finally arrived we noticed that hell had broken loose. Due to weather conditions 18 of the 20 flights sceduled before and after our flight were delayed or canceled, which resulted in a 70m long and about 8m wide line in front of the check in counters. Somehow we still managed to get our plane before take off, so right now we are in Fukuoka where it’s about 20 degrees warmer than in Sapporo.

Also Hana Hostel has a way better Internet connection than our last Hotel, so we finally managed to get the promised Panda pictures online!

panda

Panda!

panda_2

another one!

panda_3

asleep because the upload took so long…

this_cat

Have you seen this cat?

Sapporo Yuki Matsuri

On 6. 2. it was time to go to Sapporo, this time from Haneda Airport in Tokyo to Chitose Airport in Hokkaido. The weather in Tokyo was very clear, so from the airplane we could see the top of  Fuji-san over the clouds. The flight took us 1:30h. In Hokkaido it was notably colder with about -7°C.

When we finally made it to Sapporo and left the station, we found ourselves on a bright, noisy and crowded street. No, not like Tokyo with its loads of advertisement. People here were celebrating the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri, the Snow Festival. All along the street ice sculptures had been built and music was playing.
Maybe this will help you imagine:

Sapporo Snow Festival in Susukino

Sapporo Snow Festival in Susukino

Sapporo Snow Festival sculpture

Sapporo Snow Festival sculpture

We hurried to Swanky Hotel for the check-in, which wasn’t very far. Because it was a bit late already, we only went through this street to take photos and afterwards looked for something to eat and went back to the hotel. For the next day there would be even more to see.

Breakfast was included this time. Nothing special or traditional but good enough to start the day. Then we went to Odori Park, which was originally meant to be the main street of Sapporo but somehow changed into a park. Here we found some really huge snow sculptures, and also many smaller ones – even a ramp for freestyle snowboarding.

snow palace

snow palace

freestile ramp

freestile ramp

Suddenly we were surrounded by little children running in groups through the park. They had to ask people some questions and we, as foreigners, were frequently their victims.

some kids and their victims ;)

some kids and their victims ;)

Today there was also another shrine to visit. The Hokkaido Jingu Shrine in Maruyama Park. It was again very beautiful and the snowy forest surrounding gave the area a completely different atmosphere to what we have seen before.

Hokkaido Jingu Shrine

Hokkaido Jingu Shrine

Next stop was the Sapporo Beer Museum. Without a guide, you can see the exhibition on the 3rd floor for free.
Maybe an interesting fact: In 1865, Seibei Nakagawa went to Europe and returned to Japan in 1875 after more than two years of beer brewing in Germany. In Japan he was employed by Kaitakushi as first Japanese beer brewing master.
Afterwards you can try several sorts of beer on the 1st floor, which is designed in some ways like a beer garden. There we tried the sorts Classic, Black Label (best selling sort) and Kaitakushi.

i think that needs no further explanation ;)

i think that needs no further explanation ;)

Last but not least we got ourselves some ramen in Ramen Jokucho, a street only with ramen shops. Not the cheapest of our meals but really worth a try (and the street looks very nice)!

Ramen Jokuchou

Ramen Jokuchou

Ueno Zoo & Ikebukuro

On February the 5th we went to the Ueno Park again to visit the Ueno Zoo. Its area was much larger as we expected, so it took us until the early afternoon to finish the tour. We saw many animals like elephants, polar bears, seals, aye-ayes (creeeepy), Japanese and tropical birds aaaand of course the famous PANDAS!

 Sadly our current internet connection doesn’t seem to like pandas, so have a seal instead:

seal

seal

Our panda pics refuse to upload right now , but we try to post them as soon as possible!

Afterwards we tried to find our way through Ikebukuro (which wasn´t that easy) to the Zoshigaya Kishimojindo Temple . This is the first temple we visited, where it wasn´t forbidden to make photos of the inner sanctum. The inner sanctum of a temple or shrine is usually very fascinating and beautiful. As we didn´t want to offend the people praying there, we didn´t take any photos of a sanctum until now, so we are glad to be able to show you this:

inner_temple

Zoshigaya Kishimojindo Temple sanctum

In the late afternoon we went to Sunshine City, a well known, giant shopping center, that extends over several floors. However, shopping is not the only thing you can do there: in the building there are also an aquarium, two amusement parks and a planetarium. We visited Namco Namja Town, one of the amusement parks. Altough it seems to be made for little children, you can find all kind of people there. Sadly most of the attractions are in Japanese. Nevertheless we went into the Grudge Inn, sort of a haunted house (it didn´t require that much Japanese skills). It was very funny and a bit scary too!
To finish the day, we went through the Gyoza Mile to get us some delicious tasting Gyoza.

gyoza_mile

Namco Namja Town Gyoza Mile

Shibuya and Shinjuku

We started the 4th February off by visiting Shibuya Station to see the statue of Hachikō and to have breakfast. Those few of you who do not know about the famous japanese Akita should really look him up at Wikipedia

Hachikō

Hachikō statue

This time, we tried a more western style breakfast which included a hard boiled egg, a very thick piece of toast with ham, cheese and mayonnaise, salad and coffee. It was quite cheap, especially because it contained coffee, which is quite expensive in Japan.

After that, we headed back to the station and went to Harajuku Station to visit Yoyogi Park and the Meiji-Shrine within. Unfortunately, it started to rain as we left the station. Nonethless the park and shrine were really impressive and we were able to get another entry for our temple book.

yoyogi gate

Yoyogi park entrance gate

sake barrels

sake barrels at Yoyogi park

meiji shrine

meiji shrine

We left the park and headed right for the Japanese Sword Museum. The museum was a bit smaller than I had imagined and was spread over two floors. The first floor explained the process of creating a japanese sword, while the second one contained the exhibition of blades and sword parts form the 14th to the 20th century. Sadly, photographs were strictly prohibitted at the second floor, but the exhibition was really impressive.

not quite as easy as it looks ;)

how to create a katana

After the museum we went straight to Shinjuku. We went to an amazing udon shop, which Mike explained an entry earlier (“Japanese Food”). Then we headed right into the streets and shops of Shinjuku. The weather had changed from rain to heavy snow so we did not manage to get any good pictures neither from our trip through that part of Tokyo, nor from our visit to the observatory at the 45th floor of the Metropolitan Government Building.

The snow didn’t stop until we arrived back at Ueno Station, so at least we got some decent pictures there.

ueno

In front of Ueno Station

Japanese food

Yesterday we started the day with a “japanese style” breakfast in a restaurant not far from the Ueno Youth Hostel. Here is how it looked like:

japanese_breakfast

Japanese breakfast

Of course there are different variations, but I want to explain what the one we ate contained. I start from the upper left to lower right:

1)  a whole, scarcely boiled egg, which swam in something we think was some kind of soup. It was served cold.
2)  Tororo – grated “yam” (a vegetable) with some sauce we can´t explain what it tasted like. It was served cold too.
3)  some marinated vegetables, cold
4)  warm rice
5) dry seaweed
6) Miso soup, hot

Although the Tororo tasted kind of weird and the egg was mostly raw (it is meant to be like that), the breakfast tasted quite good.

 

As lunch we went to a restaurant in Asakusa. We all got green tea immediately after we entered. The waiters refilled our cups regularly (this is one of the coolest habits in Japan, because in most restaurants you get the green tea for free). For the meals, i let the pictures speak for themselves:

food1

meal we forgot the name of ;)

food2

Sashimi

food3

Bento box

All in all it tasted very good. What suprised us, is the price, because we often heard about how expensive Japan is. The breakfast was about 4,50 € and the menues above between 6,50 and 10,50 €. You can get decent Sushi plates for about 10€, although the one of better quality is about 15€ and above. Of course we benefit from the current exchange rate, but even if the prices where higher, we wouldn´t complain, because the amount of food was always enough for us.

Today we went to an Udon shop in Shinjuku, where you can choose the ingredients and topping yourself (so much variations – wow!). It was very , very delicious and I dare to say it was the best we ate in Japan until now. Of course we made some fotos of the shop and I want to close todays post with them:

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Udonshop 1. picture

udonshop3

Udonshop 2. picture

udonshop1

Udonshop 3. picture